Desperation as China’s locked down cities pay price of zero-Covid strategy

Strict lockdowns in the Chinese cities of Xi’an and Yuzhou are taking their toll on the population and healthcare systems, according to residents, with complaints of food shortages and dangerous delays in accessing medical care.

Xi’an, a city of 13 million people, has been under a strict lockdown for nearly two weeks, while Yuzhou’s 1.2 million residents have been ordered to stay inside since Monday evening, after three asymptomatic cases were discovered. Public transport, the use of private motor vehicles, and operation of all shops and venues not supplying daily necessities have all been suspended.

On China’s strictly monitored and regulated social media platforms, a significant number of residents have posted about their concerns and anxieties, despite generally broad support for authorities’ swift response to outbreaks.

Local media has reported concerning delays in the cities’ major hospitals, which require negative tests from patients before they can be admitted. A screenshot of one post which went viral before being deleted claimed a man and his sick father were turned away from a Xi’an hospital because they were from an area designated as higher risk. The post said the man’s father was having a heart attack but died by the time he was admitted for treatment.


In another account posted to social media, a woman in labour lost her baby after she was prevented from entering a Xi’an hospital. In a since-deleted post, a relative described calling emergency services on the night of 1 January for their aunt after she started feeling pain, but the phone rang out.

Instead they sent her to hospital at around 8pm but “the front door security wouldn’t let us in, because the nucleic acid test result had been more than four hours ago”, they said.

“While she was waiting outside, I saw the video her husband sent me, she was holding the chair, struggling to sit on it, and her blood streamed down the chair and her pants.” They said hospital staff saw and brought her inside and to the operating room, but the child died.

A spokeswoman for the state-linked Shaanxi women’s federation, said they had talked to authorities about the incident. “They should be learning about the incident now. Because the epidemic in Xi’an is quite serious now, there definitely should be a solution.”


A community volunteer uses a megaphone to remind residents to keep their social distance as they line up to collect their daily necessities outside a residential block in Xi’an.

A community volunteer uses a megaphone to remind residents to keep their social distance as they line up to collect their daily necessities outside a residential block in Xi’an. Photograph: AP

Reports of food shortages in Xi’an have also flourished on social media despite promises by authorities to deliver supplies to homes, and claims of neighbours bartering cigarettes and personal belongings for food.

“I have only received free vegetables once so far, and one package per household,” said one resident. “The price of food in the city is very high, and there is no one to regulate it. There is no take-away service for daily necessities, and the errand fee is about 100 yuan ($15) before someone takes the order.”

The strict rules have also prevented people from coming and going. Sixth Tone reported authorities had arrested several people trying to evade the blockades and return to villages without quarantining, including a man who cycled 100km (60 miles) through mountains, and another who swam across an icy river.

Authorities have conceded there have been issues, including poorly prepared centralised quarantine facilities where tens of thousands of people have been sent.

Local officials are often punished or fired for alleged failures in outbreak prevention, including two senior Communist party officials in Xi’an who were removed from their posts over their “insufficient rigour in preventing and controlling the outbreak”.

On Monday, Xi’an officials said the city had spent about $1m on assisting people in need, and had housed about 200 stranded people in temporary shelters. They also promised to set up hotlines and further assistance services.

Xi’an is the centre of the current outbreak, China’s worst since the early months of the pandemic. More than 1,700 cases have been recorded in the city since early December – a relatively low number compared with global figures as China continues to implement the zero-Covid strategy which has kept infections at low levels for much of the past 18 months.

With the Olympics around the corner and a central government commitment vowing to stamp out the virus, local officials have enacted increasingly strict responses, resulting in lockdowns reminiscent of Wuhan’s in early 2020. Other urban hubs where clusters have been detected now also face restrictions including a new partial lockdown in the city of Zhengzhou over the discovery of four cases.

On Tuesday, China reported 41 new symptomatic community cases, including 35 in Xi’an. On Wednesday, officials said the city’s outbreak had been largely “brought under control” after the lockdown.

Ma Guanghui, deputy director of Shaanxi health commission, told a press conference the outbreak was “showing a downward trend”.


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